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Sporting News’ Alex Marvez talks Cards, NFC West and Super Bowl picks

WR Larry Fitzgerald goes in motion during training camp Aug. 10. (Photo by Adam Green)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Alex Marvez has covered the National Football League for 22 years as a beat writer (Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins) and national columnist (FOX, Sporting News). He also served as the president of the Professional Football Writers of America from 2007-2009.

Arizona Sports caught up with the Sporting News NFL columnist and SiriusXM NFL Radio host on Wednesday at University of Phoenix Stadium — in the midst of his whirlwind training camp tour which has already stopped in Atlanta, Houston, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles — to talk Cardinals, NFC West and Super Bowl projections.

The Cardinals believe QB Carson Palmer’s playing window is longer than originally anticipated. With that in mind, they signed Palmer and receiver Larry Fitzgerald to one-year extensions last week. Do you agree that the window has lengthened, and how long do you think Arizona has to win a Super Bowl?

Marvez: “It’s a great question. Is it a one-year window? Is it a two-year window? In theory, you think Carson Palmer is playing great football now, but is he going to be the same at 37?

“I talked to (coach) Bruce Arians about it. He said that when Carson came back from the ACL tear suffered in 2014 he was almost like a different athlete. He was in great shape and the rehab obviously paid dividends in a lot of different ways as far as him becoming physically stronger.

“When I talked to Carson he said he feels 28, 29 years old, but we have to look at last season. Was it really the dislocated finger suffered against Philadelphia in Week 15 that led to his (playoff) demise or is this a player who got tired as the season went on and might be hard pressed to take a team deep into the postseason, a la Peyton Manning and the concerns about him the final few years of his NFL career?”

Critics suggest Palmer doesn’t perform well in the postseason, even though he has played in just over three games? Is that fair?

Marvez: “We’ll never know what would have happened in 2005 when he was playing for Cincinnati against the Steelers and Kimo von Oelhoffen goes crashing into his knee on the first pass play, he tears his ACL and the Bengals go down the tubes. He made it back a couple years later, but no quarterback has won a playoff game for Cincinnati since Norman Julius Esiason — a.k.a. Boomer back in the day in 1990 — and the Raiders were obviously a bad team when Carson was there.

“Carson wasn’t even on the field a couple years ago when the Cardinals made the playoffs and lost to Carolina so there isn’t much to judge him on. I think he can be a playoff performer and the thing about the Cardinals is, the supporting cast around him is so good. David Johnson and Chris Johnson are your running backs. Are you kidding me? If Chris Johnson is your backup running back, there’s a lot worse things that could be happening with your team, and I like the depth on this team as well.”

What are your biggest concerns with the Cardinals?

Marvez: “Somebody opposite Patrick Peterson is going to get picked on. If they want to play Brandon Williams as a starter as a rookie — only his second year playing cornerback after he switched at Texas A&M — there may be a possibility that if you can’t pressure the quarterback, this guy is going to give up some big plays. Or is Justin Bethel truly a good enough corner to withstand people trying to avoid Patrick Peterson? Because that is how people are going to attack this Cardinals team.

“On the offensive side of the football, probably out of all the starters, (right tackle) D.J. Humphries and (center) A.Q. Shipley are the most questionable. I say Shipley because he’s so small at 6-1, 300 pounds that there is a possibility he is going to get bull rushed by a much bigger player. And is he going to be able to get some push in the running game? Of course they have (fourth-round pick) Evan Boehm. Maybe he’s going to be ready at some point during the season and he’s a bigger bodied guy, but until then you’re playing with A.Q.

“With Humphries, we haven’t seen him. All that gives you confidence is (guard) Evan Mathis saying how talented he could be and the Cardinals saying ‘look, this guy played at 288 pounds in college. He’s much bigger (307), much stronger now and he gets it. He’s hungry now. He wants to prove he’s good.’ We’re about to find out if they’re right.”

What encourages you about the Cardinals?

Marvez: “They are one of the big-play teams in the NFL. They get chunk yards. They have receivers that go down (the field). The speed on this team is great. It’s one of the things that separates the Cardinals from everybody is the fact that they can score at any time.

“With (safety) Tyrann Mathieu back, they’re an opportunistic defense. They give teams headaches. It’s as good a defense as any in the NFL.

“With the things this team did last year, even though it’s a new season, there’s a lot of confidence here. You beat Seattle up in Seattle the way that you did, you got to the NFC Championship Game by winning against Green Bay. Those are great building blocks. Now you just have to be able to finish it off.”

How much will signing outside linebacker Chandler Jones impact this team?

Marvez: “The Chandler Jones addition was such a big one. Will it prove costly to the Cardinals if he ends up leaving in free agency? Sure, but again, it’s a second-round pick they gave up and there’s no guarantee that a second-round pick would have panned out as a pass rusher so I’m all for it. Giving up (guard) Jonathan Cooper was really no loss for this team. Unfortunately, it never came together for him in Arizona.

“The question becomes, why would New England want to get rid of a player in his prime who is such a key part of their defense? Are their off-field concerns considering what happened with Chandler last January with the synthetic marijuana issue. And I hate to say it, but when you have his brother, Jon, having all sorts of legal problems, and when you have Arthur Jones, his other brother, serving a four-game suspension for PEDs, you start to wonder is this going to be three strikes and you’re out for the Jones family — in the NFL and in sports?

Is there a less-discussed aspect of the Cardinals you think warrants attention?

Marvez: “Markus Golden’s development at the other outside linebacker spot. They have two legitimate guys who can bring it, and if (defensive tackle) Robert Nkemdiche is able to get back on the field — Bruce Arians says he is hopeful he may be able to get some work in against the San Diego Chargers and play at least two preseason games — they are hoping that as the season goes on, he is able to provide some umph in the pass rush as well so you can stop sending all these crazy blitzes and putting so much stress on the secondary, especially with questions about that other spot at corner opposite Peterson.”

What do you make of signing Tyrann Mathieu to a five-year extension that will pay him $21.25 million over the next two years?

Marvez: “To me, it’s a risky move with Tyrann Mathieu but I also understand that every team’s fabric is different. (GM) Steve Keim told me he came back even better after the first ACL (tear) than he was before. He was in better shape and he showed no signs of there being a problem. They’re counting on the same thing happening with him coming off of this ACL (tear).

“If there is no cartilage damage that was suffered and it’s just a clean ACL tear, then I can feel better about it, but it’s still a very risky move — a guy with two torn ACLs. I guess you look at the risk-reward. You’ve got a guy who is happy, he’s under contract and prices for great players in the NFL aren’t getting any cheaper.

“If this guy were about to become a free agent they’d have to use the franchise tag. It could get ugly, but players are happy here. The contract issues haven’t been around lately because guys have been getting paid and they feel they can manage the cap.”

Looking around the NFC West, are the Rams finally ready to challenge the division powers?

Marvez: “I think they’re still a season away. I don’t feel confident about the quarterback position with Case Keenum and Jared Goff being a rookie, I still have questions on the offensive line, I still have some questions on defense with some of the players that they lost.

“Is Tavon Austin a bona fide No. 1 receiver? Who else is going to step up and carry that load? Is Tyler Higbee, the fourth-round pick out of Western Kentucky, truly ready to make an impact as a pass catcher? Whoever is playing quarterback has to have weapons. To me, this has all the earmarks of another 8-8, 7-9 Jeff Fisher-coached team.”

Should we expect Seattle back in the mix for the division title?

Marvez: “Seattle is right back in the mix for the division, no question. I think the signing of (guard) Jahri Evans was a wise one earlier this week. They tried with the young guys as long as they could and they realized ‘hey, we’re going to get (QB) Russell Wilson killed if we don’t get someone in who understands that guard position.’ So Jahri Evans comes in from the Saints, still has some gas left in the tank and is a real good player who just wouldn’t take a pay cut to stick with the Saints so he’s out the door.

“This line still has to come together a bit. That’s going to be an early-season challenge and Thomas Rawls has to get back in the swing of things and prove he’s an every-down type of marquee running back. It was a great flash from him (last season) but can he prove it over the long haul? And then I wonder how are the Seahawks going to integrate (tight end) Jimmy Graham into this offense?

“Overall though, I think this defense is really stout and the Seahawks are a playoff team — by far the strongest contender to Arizona atop the division.”

Has San Francisco hit rock bottom?

Marvez: “I think they could go lower. They could get the No. 1 pick in the draft. They have some promising young players. They really do, and I think the rebuild may be a little bit quicker than some people expect, but you still have Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and I don’t know if (coach) Chip Kelly’s offense works. Are you going to have 34 minutes of a defense on the field and be able to succeed — especially a defense as thin as the 49ers’? That’s an awful lot to ask of this squad.

“Behind Carlos Hyde, there’s really not very much at the running back position, and the wide receiver position is the same thing: Torrey Smith and a bunch of guys.

“They’re hurting real bad in San Francisco. They had a window of opportunity and it closed. They tried to extend it with (coach) Jim Tomsula for whatever reason and that was a disaster. I have a lot of questions about them but hey, who knows, maybe a great quarterback will be available in the 2017 Draft.”

Looking at the NFL as a whole, Tom Brady’s four-game suspension will obviously help the Cardinals in Week 1, but do you think it will significantly impact the Patriots’ season?

Marvez: “I don’t think it will matter for New England or Tom Brady missing those games. What I find interesting are long-haul, legacy type of things — how we look back at the situation and how it affects Brady. Will Tom Brady want anything to do with the NFL after his playing days are done? When he’s asked to return for different league-related things will he say ‘no’ and stick with Patriots functions?

“It’s still hard for me to believe that Tom Brady is going to miss four games to open the regular season. I find that hard to believe because there was not a smoking gun that was found, although there was a lot of incriminating evidence.”

Who are your six NFC playoff teams?

Marvez: “The Washington Redskins will win the NFC East; not even close. The Minnesota Vikings will win the NFC North. I’m going with Carolina in the NFC South & Atlanta as a wild card. And in the NFC West, Arizona will win the division and Seattle will be a wild card.

Who are your Super Bowl teams?

Marvez: “I think the Vikings are going to the Super Bowl. They remind me a lot of the 2013 Seattle Seahawks: young quarterback, third-year guy but all he has to do is make a couple plays. Adrian Peterson in the backfield, their version of Marshawn Lynch, and a really good young defense. I think this group will be ready to play and I really like Mike Zimmer as a head coach.”

Who will Minnesota play?

Marvez: “The Patriots, of course. As (wrestler) Rick Flair would say, ‘to be the man you’ve got to beat the man.’ Who’s going to knock them off the perch in the AFC East? The Patriots almost always get that first-round bye, they’ve only lost once in the (coach Bill) Belichick era when playing at home after that first-round bye. It’s almost automatic that they’re in the AFC Championship game every year, and if they get to play it at home they don’t lose.”

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